How players end up on teams is a different process for each league. Major League teams may assign certain guys to a league. There's also the possibility that a winter-ball team may contact a club and inquire about his availability, or a player can simply ask to play for a particular club.
Martin Maldonado, a native of Puerto Rico and the Brewers' backup catcher, got to pick the team in his home country's league. He spent the majority of his winter there playing for the Indios de Mayaguez in the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente. Maldonado caught 28 games, hitting .271 with 11 RBIs.
Maldonado enjoys playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, because it allows his family to watch him catch. The fact that he was able to go home after a game and eat his wife's cooking didn't hurt either.
"My family only comes to the U.S. two times a year, so over there, they get to see me play pretty much every day, and it's great," Maldonado said.
Whereas Maldonado has played multiple seasons in the winter before, Tuffy Gosewisch, a catcher in the D-backs' system, had never participated in one. In Gosewisch's case, the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Winter League came calling for his services.
"[The D-backs] didn't assign me it," Gosewisch said. "The winter-ball team called the D-backs and asked if it was OK if I went, and then they called me. I talked to the Diamondbacks, and we discussed it all. It was kind of like a mutual decision where they thought it'd be a good idea, and I thought it would be a good learning experience."
Part of the experience for American-born players like Gosewisch who don't speak much Spanish is the language gap that's present when they head to countries like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Yet, after a while, a system of makeshift communication emerges to help the players get by.
"I would speak bad Spanish and they would speak bad English, and we would figure out what each other was trying to say," Gosewisch said. "They appreciate it if you try."
In addition to the language barrier, there's a shift in the culture around baseball in the Caribbean compared to the United States. It was a shock for Gosewisch to witness the change in atmosphere.
"Every game is like Game 7 of the World Series to the fans," Gosewisch said. "Everyone is crazy, and every game you play to win. It's almost like the football season, where every game matters. And that's how they play it; they play with a lot of pride."
No matter how seriously the fans take the games, Gosewisch and Maldonado said winter ball is an opportunity to fine-tune some specific skills by the time Spring Training comes around with their respective clubs.
"I just went down there to get more at-bats," Gosewisch said. "They have some good arms down there, so it was a chance to see some good pitching and just get a few at-bats that I might not have gotten in September."
Maldonado said it's a more relaxed feeling with the winter-ball clubs. He can just show up and play ball.
"There is not that many meetings or scouting reports; it's just more like you're there and you're going to play, that's it," Maldonado said. "There's a lot of stuff that is going on over there that there isn't here. You don't have to shag, and you can show up later."
If anything, winter ball provides players like Gosewisch a chance to explore a different area of the world where they might not have gone otherwise.
"We didn't really do anything that crazy, but we went down to the old town there and walked around, went to some cigar factories," Gosewisch said. "It was a pretty cool experience."